Highest Best Use of Credit Cards, Elephants Need Not Apply

Seth was 15 when he decided he needed a real piano.

?Not something you find on free-cycle, Mom,? he told me.

Seth had been 12 when we left my uncle?s upright Gulbranson in California in 2010 because, well, because it?s ridiculous to haul a piano across the country to Washington D.C.

I thought I would be able to pick up a used piano cheap.

I was.

We wrestled the first one we found on free-cycle, a spinet, onto our truck. Although it was tuned twice in a few months by the nerdiest guy I?ve ever met (and I?ve met some humdingers,) it never sounded like a real piano. It plinked and plunked. But all the keys worked.

Seth?s teacher, who is a real world-class classical and jazz pianist named Burnett, said we really should buy the $29,000 beauty in his living room; It was a good deal.

I told him my price range.

He suggested getting a Casio Privia. So $700 and a few mounting racks drilled into Seth?s bedroom wall later, Seth was sounding a lot better. We watched with delight as two other free-cyclers hauled away the spinet.

Fast forward two years. Seth moved from Hanon finger exercises ?to jazz improv to Mozart, Schumann and Chopin.

Seth complained the keys were not properly resistant. He talked about tone, chord changes, clarity and resonance.

As an unemployed journalist and a student, I knew we couldn?t afford much.? But Seth?s music — he now played tenor sax, drums, string bass and flute — was enchanting. He?d debuted at the Kennedy Center. He was first chair in band. I was willing to make an effort.

I did keep an eye on free-cycle for a couple months but just for the record, we found Seth?s baby on Craig?s List.

The ad had been run repeatedly with ever dropping prices until it was ?free, you haul.?

We drove to a burg in Maryland north of D.C., a McMansion, the kind where the developers tore down all the trees, built gargantuan box-shaped homes with multiple-car garages then planted little trees, failed to water them so they died?you get the picture.

Seth had just turned 15. He had just rocketed from 5?8? to 6?1? in about a year. He was just getting a dusting of acne. His fingers could span an octave and one. But some things are still very difficult at 15.

We pulled into the landing strip that was the driveway.

?Mom, if it?s a really sucky piano how am I gonna say ?we don?t want your piano???

Some things are difficult at any age.

We came up with a code:

If Seth used the word ?Mozart? in a sentence, it meant he wanted the piano.

If Seth used the word ?Bartok? in a sentence, it meant he did not want the piano. Seth is not a big fan of Bartok.

I would take it from there.

Why no one wanted the piano was immediately clear.

Its pedals were broken off from the base, which was in turn broken off from the piano, the bench didn?t match the piano and the cushion on the bench looked disgusting.? Many ivories were missing.

Seth whizzed his fingers up and down the keyboard, playing every note.

?I could play Mozart on this,? Seth said, proceeding to do just that.

The lid was dis-attached in two parts, the music stand didn?t stand up and it needed tuning badly. The exterior wood was dented and dinged.

?The tone is excellent,? Seth said.

I talked to the McMansion owner, who had been working on his Porsche nearby.? He had told his nephew, who had inherited it from his grandmother, that he needed to get it outta this garage. Last year.

I guess with three Porsches and two Harleys, the four-car garage was getting crowded.

The man, speaking through serious acne scars, was tough, polite, insistent.

It was Seth?s if I could get it out of here by 5:30 p.m.

?I?ll try to find someone to move it,? I said, returning to my Prius, (we had sold our truck.)

I called piano movers, many piano movers. Their prices ranged from $250 (two weeks out) to $565 plus mileage (Wednesday at the earliest.) Most were closed Saturdays but my call was very important to them.

I gave up and out of courtesy, called the Porsche guy back with the bad news.

?It?s not looking good,? I said.

?Five-thirty,? he said.

The deadline came and went.

In the subsequent days I visited a showroom with lots of shiny pianos. We listened to a baby grand just outside of Leesburg, the only one less than $3,000 we could find that guaranteed all the keys played; we checked out a nice $2,500 Yamaha in Georgetown that was only missing one key.

None, according to Seth, had the tone of the freebie in the Maryland McMansion, not even the expensive ones in the showroom.

One of the piano movers called me back?the one whose ad showed his truck at the white house, delivering the biggest piano I?d ever seen.? This was the guy Burnett had recommended. ?Oh we get people trying to get rid of them all the time,? the man said, I?ll look through my warehouse and give you a call.

I never heard back.

A week later a friendly voice called saying he could move the piano for $250.

Yes, he was willing to do it the day before Thanksgiving.

I called the McMansion in Maryland.

Yes, he still had it and he agreed to be there for a one-hour window Wednesday.

Three beautiful specimens of humanity, muscles rippling in the slanting sunlight, moved the piano in through our side door, tapped the parts together with a rubber mallet, showed me their gapped-toothed smiles. One of them touched the keys lightly ?just to see if everything works,? creating a sound that showed me just how hard musicians have to work to make a living.

The tuner spent nearly five hours on it, reporting that the threads were good, it hadn?t been played or tuned, possibly, ever. The piano was a baby grand built in 1921 in New York by the man who invented the double-action key stroke.? He had won big awards at the world?s fair in Paris at the turn of the century.

The missing ivory? You should really replace them to match?with real ivory.

Yeah, right. No elephants were dying for my child?s musical career.

I discovered with the help of a 40x loupe that the thickness of the ivory was precisely the thickness of a credit card.

I used my scissors and a nail file to create replacements, which I installed with rubber cement.

Can't tell? It's the F.
Can’t tell? It’s the F.

I bought some spackle, some shiny black paint, a whole lot of brass screws.

Seth, who just turned 16 and is stretching to 6? 2? and an octave plus two, practices now without my asking.

?It?s so nice to have a real piano,? he says.


Mexican Moonshine and Cultural Geography

You?ve probably never heard of Bacanora.
It?s a crazy ass-kicking form of alcohol. And the name of the town where it?s made.
When I visited this town I was 15 years old, the daughter of the professor leading a cultural geography field trip from the University of Montana. We were on the 7th day of a two-week trip that embraced spring break. We had departed during finals week and would return after registration began. The year was 1982.
My father?s field trip to Mexico every spring included a guest professor or two, and 16 students. I kept a journal for the three such trips I took with him, but my memory is more clear than my writing. My father began with a puritanical lecture before the scheduled departure. He warned of the deplorable condition of Mexican jails and the lack of justice in general should you land in one. He warned of the certain downfalls resulting from excessive consumption of beer and the general unsanitary conditions in which we would all live south of the border. He collected fifty dollars from every student to form a kitchen kitty and gave it to me for safekeeping. I would pay for all groceries on the trip, which we would take turns cooking on a camp stove or over a fire. We would sleep outside.

mexican doorway
A photo I took in a small Mexican town, probably in 1982.

Bacanora — the alcohol — a sort of moonshine, was made from agave bacanora, my father told us and I noted in my journal. Its production, possession, consumption and trade were illegal.
Naturally, when we arrived in the town of Bacanora, Papa thought it would be fun to try to obtain some.?When two GMC Suburbans-ful of students watched my father emerge from the town bar accompanied by a policeman after he went looking for a sample, we were all concerned.

Papa, a tall, blonde man who spoke Spanish as a native, walked down the street with the uniformed officer, away from us, without glancing back. He and the policeman were engaged in animated conversation. I assumed Papa was talking his way out of something.
Papa was the man who had slipped three twenties into my passport to get me through the border without the notarized permission letter from my mother that had been demanded. I remember the passport going under a desk for a moment, the bureaucrat?s eyes on the paper before him as though he didn?t know what his left hand was doing. His right hand stamped the paper with a huge multi-action metal device, clearly larger and more complicated a device than was truly necessary to simply place some ink on a piece of paper.
The now-empty passport and now-stamped paper quickly returned to us and we were free to enter hot, dry Mexico.

Bacanora — the town– hides in the mountains of south eastern Sonora. We saw no other cars in town when we arrived. We learned that a beer truck visited the town weekly on its way to Sahuaripe and that other vehicles came and went. But the afternoon we were there the only thing in the street was a mangy sleeping dog who was in very little danger of being run over.
Houses here did not look different from houses in other small towns we visited. Adobe walls painted tints of yellow or blue punctuated by dark unlit doorways lined the dirt street. The tops of walls in these towns often featured broken bottles set into concrete to discourage anything but bougainvillea from climbing them. The poverty was heart-wrenching.

My journal describes faces appearing in a dark doorway, first one, then two, finally nine smudgy faces in one door.
The doorways did not appear to actually have doors. My father turned into one such rectangular entrance, marked only by a flower pot from which a screeching pink bougainvillea climbed. The policeman emerged shortly and returned to the bar.
A sweaty half-hour later, my father stepped out alone, gripping a liter-sized brown beer bottle stopped with a rag, a huge grin on his face.

That night, at a campsite in the desert, one of the students poured a little of the bottle?s contents on a rock and lit a match. The stone caught fire. ?My journal doesn’t record what happened next and although I’m sure I didn’t taste the stuff, I don’t have any memory of that night. My father was not a drinker and undoubtedly released the bottle to the students with some words of warning before going to sleep. ?He and a guy named “Hans” were forced to sleep separate from the rest of us because they snored so disturbingly. I remember two students, both named “Dave” who learned more cultural geography than probably anyone else, simply because they always went straight to the bars. ?They had the most to report as we shared notes around the campfire.

I remember the morning after Bacanora, all the sleeping bags flat out on the tarps, no one moving, just my father making cowboy coffee in a huge light blue pot. He would dump all the coffee right into the water and turn up the heat on the Coleman stove so it sounded like an airplane.?Spotting the brown bottle next to the fire ring, he held it upside down and not a drop came out. He then raised his eyebrows and looked around at the motionless sleeping bags and shook his head. ?I’m sure he didn’t want me to see it, but there was a tiny smile there.

Blogpost Travel Blog

Subcontracting Black Bears: lessons from a road trip

Last weekend?s 1,300-mile road trip took me where I didn?t know I needed to go. I learned how to capitalize on bears shitting in the woods; why the greatest vector for rabies is my friend; and where to find a little wisdom from a ghost.

My father loved sailing on Flathead Lake.

Discreet and not-so-discreet relatives gathered in Missoula, Montana, my home town, for my father?s memorial service last Thursday. With friends, we mooned over photos of the man’s handsome young self, we told stories, moaned the loss of his brain, personality and dedication to preserving environmental beauty.
We cried plenty.
Then, from the side of a sailboat, we cast his ashes by the handful into the clear, hauntingly blue waters of his favorite place, Flathead Lake. We watched him sink.
We cried plenty more.

In conversations surrounding the memorial, a Great Man emerged, as I suppose, occurs at every form of funeral.
But greatness aside, I noticed we were each talking about a different person. My sister mentioned several times that he spoke seven languages, (including Quechua, the Peruvian barber claimed); his students would miss his enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity; his colleagues mentioned his kindness and crazy ability to land Fulbright scholarships overseas. His brother told a touching dog story from their youth in Argentina; his ex, (my mother,) told a funny bear-in-camp story and his girlfriend revealed a bitter truth — about his inability to process emotion.
The man?s gift to me was teaching me the fine art of road-tripping.
To plan loosely, to allow opportunities to define the path. My father and I had road-tripped through Patagonia, the North American West, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica ? hell, the whole of the Americas pretty much. As I listened to my siblings debate the values of paintings, destinies for his many books, origins of his furniture, I felt the urge to clean the windshield.
I should drive to California instead of fly.

So I rented the smallest Uhaul I could for the shifting, splintery desk that had been in our family for five generations. I added the five crates of burlap-wrapped mosaic tiles my mother, an artist, had picked up in Italy 50 years ago but had abandoned when she divorced the man and moved to Maui. I also heaved aboard a preposterous number of vinyl records ?something my 16-year-old son has recently started coveting.
An extra futon-couch destined for a California cousin also got loaded cheerfully into the truck. It looked more comfortable than where I had planned to sleep, (a rocky ledge in the Ruby Mountains south of Elko, Nevada.) I threw in a surplus army sleeping bag, an empty gas can, a bag of almonds (my father?s favorite snack) and I was on my way.

My fishy friend riding shotgun.

Emancipated for a few days from all things probate, I departed my father?s home with a huge intake of air. The house overlooking the lake had been inhabited for a week by everyone except the man who belonged here, a condition I found unbearably sad. My laundry bag bulging, just a few clean options left, I looked at the empty passenger seat and on impulse, for company, buckled in the 5-foot stuffed fish my father had kept in his empty bathtub.
I stuffed my father?s most-worn cowboy hat on my hair to keep it from blowing around and headed south with the window wide open.

My favorite route, over Lolo pass ? where Lewis and Clark had started eating their horses ? was closed because of a wildfire. I headed straight through the smokehouse that was the Bitterroot Valley instead, stopping for a few hours to visit my college friend, Jennifer, a K-12 art teacher whose work belongs at MOMA.
Jen reported her husband, Matt, was out collecting native seed for his new nursery business. ?Matt?s excited,? she reported in a text shortly after I left, ?His ?seed collecting? black bear is working for him again.?
I confirmed that this was a way of saying that Matt was scooping poop.
?The bear works the night shift, too,? Jen responded.
The last time I stayed at Jen?s bright yellow house in Hamilton, Montana, the fire department had been called the next block over to get a black bear cub out of a tree.

I headed for Lost Trail Pass instead of Lolo. I would be tempted, as always, to hang a left at the pass and go through Wisdom, Montana, where beaver-slide hay dumps rake the sky. The last best country, this is where Chief Joseph fled, vowing to ?fight no more forever.?
Knowing that such brief delight would land me on Interstate 15, the faster, straighter route to vast Nevada, I kept true to the path less traveled, pausing only at the Lost Trail Pass ski area to adjust my fishy friend so I could see to the mirror.
The smoke only worsened when I passed the “Welcome to Idaho” sign.
As I wound down among the lodgepole pines and the occasional mountain meadow through the Salmon river drainage I thought I would tell my father how many new houses seemed to be sneaking in, that new road signs cluttered the landscape and more pickups were parked along the river. To report back: No longer could I pull over to pee behind a tree, now portapotties marked every river access; trails to the river?s edge had become perennial.
Then I remembered my father?s phone had been disconnected.

Oh, and he was deceased. I would never again hear his answering machine message: ?Hi, this is Chris, since I am neither here nor there, please leave a message.?
Feeling neither here nor there myself, I searched the landscape for comfort.


Road Trip Part II: Hosting Bats


As the valleys widened, giant wheeled irrigation systems replaced trees.
And the sky darkened.
But now, through the small ag towns of central Idaho I perceived a blue tinge, a change in pressure. This was not smoke.

Thunder shook the truck, which, I realized now, was largely metal. Soon I was struggling to find the windshield wipers, wondering if the sheer density of rain would be enough to create a path for the electricity, would allow bypass of the rubber tires that protected me.
I remembered the words on the Uhaul contract: ?water resistant but not waterproof.?
Life seemed to be demanding that I pay attention. Should I stop under a tree? Should I NOT stop under a tree? Should I stay in the truck? Should I get out?
I kept driving.

The rain (and smoke) cleared entirely by Arco, just outside Craters of the Moon National Park. I had stopped to watch a herd of antelope leap a barbed wire fence through a hay field here a decade ?or two–ago. I looked for the fence and field but couldn’t find the memory.
I pressed on.
I stopped to take a picture of the lava fields with my cell phone, a picture that did not convey the clear air, the sharp wind, the flat sky.

I headed south across the grand Snake River canyon. The sun slipped away. I would not make it to the Ruby Mountains, my favorite pull-over-and-camp spot. I would have to get past Jackpot at least, the casino that marked the border to Nevada.

But dark beat me to it.

South of Twin Falls the two-lane road, loaded heavy with Saturday night traffic, scared me a little. A whistling wind and pushy semi-trucks convinced me to pull over before the sagebrush completely disappeared in darkness. I dreaded parking next to a shoe-box RV so I began to look for an unmarked road, any unmarked road.

My father had led field trips through northern Mexico, geography field trips where students would learn how to farm without machinery, to cook without a stove, to learn without a school. And to camp without a campground.
My iphone showed no road, but it did show a blue splotch marked ?Salmon Falls Creek Reservoir.? There had to be a road to that, and it had to descend out of the tumbleweed hurricane through which I had been driving. Sure, there?d be mosquitoes, but getting out of the wind would be worth it.

Sure enough, ?Gray?s Landing? on a BLM-brown sign pulled me off the pavement. It was a marked road, but barely.

Driving fast on the washboards of the American West, I have often thought, is what Japanese carmakers do not imagine when designing cars. Someone had told me that if you go fast enough, the shocks can?t recover fast enough and the road will become smooth. This was a rental; if I could just get it to California, I wouldn?t have to repair anything.
So I tested the theory that if you go fast enough, the bumps go away.
I learned that if you go fast enough, you can create the effect of hydroplaning on a dry road.
I scared some cows.

Now completely dark, I slowed as the road became steeper and steeper, rockier and rockier, narrower and narrower, curling down to a shiny sliver of water. When the road softened, I knew I?d hit sand and risked getting stuck, so I stopped, got out, walked toward the water.

I did not notice the bats at first.

But I noticed the headlights of an ATV approaching slowly.

The ATV slipped past me, between me and the Uhaul. I had parked on the trail–Oops. A man was driving, embraced front and back by two children. A woman clung to the rear rail.
They headed up a gulley, without a word, their headlights illuminating a cluster of cars. A campfire?s light was reflected on sagebrush.
I climbed back into the truck, reversed my path and pulled onto a sidetrack, which led to a broad flat circle overlooking the landing, marked by an outhouse. I parked close to the roadcut, out of the wind, out of sight of the neighboring campsite, the back of the truck toward the water. I rolled open the truck door and after a calming can of beer, some homegrown carrots Jen had slipped into the front seat and a half a mushy sandwich, I snuggled into the musty army sleeping bag, reminded how cold the desert can get in summer.
That?s when I noticed the bats.
I had just inadvertently created exactly what bats love most. A north-facing cave on a slope open to the lee of the wind.
In they came.
I remembered the rabies vaccination treatment my teenaged son had to undergo after he had been bitten by a dog in southern Chile, shots in sequence, day after day. I pulled out my phone and asked my Facebook friends what to do. ?Turn on a light?? one suggested. There was no way in hell I was going to turn on a light. Papa would have pontificated at this point about the variety of bats and their food preferences, I imagined. ?Not many mosquitoes here,? I could hear him comment.
My Uhaul contract did not prohibit housing bats, not specifically.
I slept late and didn?t get any mosquito bites.


Road Trip Part III: Knowing the Lyrics

What awakened me was the ATV. This time it was a woman my age accompanied by four dogs. The dogs barked at me but the woman was friendly.
She was from Jackpot, camping with the grandkids. Several pickups with empty boat trailers had appeared in the gulley overnight. She listed the fish to be caught in the reservoir. Salmon was not among them.
When I thought the conversation had played out, I followed her gaze to the cliff above my Uhaul truck. Early sunlight caught a square, unnatural shape. She pointed to it and said “that’s where the kids spread their grampa’s ashes yesterday.”

That’s when I noticed the woman’s eyes were gray. We had both just lost our fathers. We had spread their ashes on the same day. I knew she wouldn’t believe me so I didn’t tell her.
She had her hands in her pockets now. It was time to get rolling.

A couple hours south, I stumbled over the decision whether to park with the trucks at the restaurant in Wells or try to fit into a parking space. I chose the trucks.
As I stepped up the curb, something about the angle of the building reminded me this was where my husband had insisted we set a date to get married, 21 years ago. What kind of trip was this?
The desert treated me well because I had a lot on my mind. Or maybe because I kept the one radio station on. George Strait had me singing Amarillo by Morning

By the time I got to Reno I had been cured.

I followed the Donner party to the Central Valley listening now to “classic” rock, realizing I knew all the words.